With its shriek of a title, Darren Aronofsky’s latest emerges from its shroud of pre-release secrecy to up the ante on the hysteria of 2010’s Black Swan. Beginning as a fairly modest home invasion chiller with a nice line in social awkwardness, it has undoubtedly earned its exclamation mark by the end.
For his seventh feature, penned in a frenzy over a mere five days, the writer/director has assembled an intriguing cast: Jennifer Lawrence plays a domestic goddess – named in the credits simply as Mother – who wafts around her paradise of a home, breathing life back into the building and tending to the ego of her much older poet husband (Javier Bardem), who’s suffering from writer’s block.
Nevertheless ‘Mother’ is more than a housewife, she’s a craftswoman who has painstakingly restored their secluded dwelling from a fire-damaged husk.
Totally oblivious to the world outside, she’s both a vision of youthful loveliness and a disconnected relic – her skin is superhumanly smooth, her devotion to domesticity feels Stepford Wive-sy. Her taste is beautiful, her efforts immaculate and she cares not a jot whether she has anyone to show off her home to.
So, when strangers show up on the couple’s doorstep our heroine bristles. First comes Ed Harris’s ailing orthopaedic surgeon, followed by his wife (a boozy, bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer – great to see her back on form) and their two adult sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson).
Events spiral, initially amusingly, then terrifyingly, and eventually in an absurdly accelerated fashion until things get very ugly indeed.
This psychological horror has shades of Rosemary’s Baby and the recent Get Out, while it flirts with ‘old dark house’ horror traditions – shadows shift, doors creak, there are plenty of ‘look behind you!’ moments. And it makes the transition from spooky to outlandish with confidence.
There’s often real dynamism to Aronofsky’s approach, yet the shocks are empty and the commentary a touch obvious – taking in the bloodsucking demands of artists and society’s insatiable appetite for consuming details of other people’s lives.
The histrionics of Black Swan were lent weight and shape by the detail of Natalie Portman’s dual performance. Lawrence brings no less conviction here but she is constrained by a role which demands her passivity, requiring her to be helpless in the face of excruciating intrusions. She’s not a naturally vulnerable actress and being stripped of her feisty edge pays dividends at first: something’s clearly off from the outset.
We’re tightly, even suffocatingly aligned with her lead in a film that favours intense close-ups and sudden reveals. But, if it’s easy to feel her frustration and unease, it’s hard to care about a protagonist with so little agency.
Although set in a single location, the agile camerawork of Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique ensures there are unpleasant discoveries around each corner. Every inch of the property is plundered, with the house ultimately opening up to make room for an unfolding nightmare, in a way that’s as visually seamless as it is narratively disconcerting.
As the film cranks up the crazy, we’re taken on an entertaining, albeit somewhat unsatisfying journey; even when Aronofsky doesn’t have much to say, at least he says it with gusto.
Review by Emma Simmonds
mother! opens in cinemas on 15th September.